Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 104



in plain English

An in-depth guide to scales, chords and the fretboard


Copyright 2016 Guitar Chalk
All rights reserved.

ISBN: 1537170236

ISBN-13: 978-1537170237


Check out guitarchalk.com/blog


1 SECTION I: Why Music Theory Matters 1

2 SECTION II: What is a note? 14

3 SECTION III: Crucial Theory Vocabulary 37

4 SECTION IV: Understanding Sheet Music 54

5 SECTION V: Understanding Intervals 67

6 SECTION VI: Basic Chords & Chord Types 75

7 SECTION VII: Understanding Scales 112

8 SECTION VIII: Conclusion 130

I believe there are two misconceptions about music theory that ought to be dispelled.
First, that music theory is inherently difficult and unlearnable for the average joe who
just wants to pick up a guitar and play.

Music theory isnt a burdensome nuisance that aspiring guitarists need to put up with.
Rather, its a helpful structure that provides clarity and a greater chance of success, not just
with the guitar, but in music as a whole.
The second misconception, is that music theory is not necessary to learn.

While it might be true that you can skirt by on little or no theory and still be a strong
fretboardist, you will never truly know and understand why youre playing what youre
playing without a firm knowledge of music theory. I would argue that theory is
fundamental to the guitar, even critical.

Yet, Im not here to tell you that you must read sheet music, understand the full breadth of
what it means to compose, or be capable of acing formal music theory courses.

If that were the goal, I myself would be woefully inadequate to write this book.

Because Im not a theory guru or a classically trained musician. And the good news is
that you dont have to be either.

The goal is not to be a master of music theory, but instead to learn the basic tenets of
theory that directly apply to the guitar.
And whats even better news, is that we can learn those tenants fairly quickly using plain
English thats easy to understand and to put into practice. By the time youre done with
this book youll know theory and, more importantly, youll know music.
Further, youll be in a position to apply it to the guitar. As a pleasant side effect, the
fretboard will make more sense to you as a helpful grid, instead of a confusing challenge.

I sincerely hope you enjoy the process.

Robert Bobby Kittleberger
I dont know anything about music theory at all. Zero. - Amos Lee

Guitar players, and many guitar teachers, are quick to dismiss music theory.

Their reasons will vary. Some believe it isnt necessary or helpful. Others find it too
difficult or not as relevant to the guitar as it might be to other instruments, like the piano.

Even many of musics most renowned contributors have commonly minimized the
discipline of learning theory or music as a whole.

Take the king of rock and roll himself, Elvis Presley:

I dont know anything about music. In my line, you dont have to. - Elvis Presley

Frank Zappa offers a far more unfavorable view of what it means to compose:

A composer is a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often
with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians. - Frank Zappa

While this is certainly not the view of all musicians, theres an oddly pervasive sentiment
that music theory is stifling and obstructive; that its antithetical to musical freedom and
creative expression.

This sentiment often causes aspiring guitarists to avoid music theory all together. Because,
in the world of the arts, what seems rigid and academic will always lose ground to what is
said to be freeform and unbounded.

Thus the music world at large, and its lean towards free, artistic expression, has in many
instances, been prone to minimize music theory and downplay the value of musical
structures. This has contributed to the idea that music theory isnt necessary outside of
formal education.

Even if you get into the realm of classical composition.

Claude Debussy, a renowned French composer, put it this way:

There is no theory. You have only to listen. Pleasure is the law. I love music passionately.
And because I love it, I try to free it from the barren traditions that stifle it. It is a free art
gushing forth, an open air art, boundless as the elements, the wind, the sky, the sea. It
must never be shut in and become an academic art.

Debussy obviously had a love-hate relationship with music theory.

While one could empathize with the sentiment of what Debussy is saying, its difficult to
agree with, or accept the implications of, this view of music for a couple of reasons.

First, there certainly is theory. In fact, music means nothing to us without it.

Second, music theory and barren traditions are not one in the same. Traditions, in and of
themselves can be good or bad. They are fluid, highly subjective trends that depend on
ones culture, skill level and stylistic leanings.

Boiling theory down to simple tradition and equating the two is intellectually simplistic
and a bit irresponsible.

While music is certainly free and expressive, it is most optimally expressed within the
structural confines of music theory.

Theory supersedes tradition and has input into every type and style of music, regardless of
how creative (or uninspired) it might be.

Throwing off the academic aspects of music does both the teacher and the student a
disservice. While music is certainly free and expressive, it is most optimally expressed
within the structural confines of music theory.

In other words, music is variety within structure, which Debussy, if he were more aware
of his own analogy, would know that the elements are as well. The sea, the sky and the
wind are extremely varied, yet they exist and function within a well-established scientific
structure and creative order.

Furthermore, the structure that music theory provides is far larger than the expanse of our
own creativity, which is often severely limited by style, preference and abilities.

In other words, theory provides the foundation for your ideas to naturally flow. Thus, the
most powerful argument for needing to know music theory is that it provides governing
borders that supports our creativity. They are one anothers strongest allies.

I would also add that there is a lot of music theory that guitar players dont need to know,
simply because it is not directly applicable to our instrument.

Many lanes of music theory are vast, complex and even mathematical. Therefore its not
necessary (or even productive) that we be experts in all of these facets. In this book, Ill
show you what portions of theory are worthy of your attention and most relevant to your
instrument of choice - the guitar.

This will benefit you primarily in three ways:

1. It will help you put words (definitions) and correct terminology behind simple
musical concepts and structures.

2. It will allow you to more effectively converse and collaborate with musicians
who are formally educated in music.

3. It will help you understand music as a whole, as opposed to guitar as a single


One of the primary goals of our musicianship, and our guitar playing, should be the third
item in this list. We need to understand music, not just our guitar. If we glean a
comprehensive understanding of music and composition, then what happens on the
fretboard will make more sense to us.

To help you get there, Ill start with the simplest building blocks and work upward.

After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward
of art. - Frederic Chopin

The first question we need to answer is a simple one:

What is a note?

Further, how do we make sense of those notes when were looking at just our fretboard,
without theory books or instructional material to lean on, in the moment?

Understanding notes - musics most elementary building block - is the first step towards
understanding the theory that underscores the fretboard. If we can comprehend whats
happening when were playing one note, we can build our knowledge base out from there.

This will help us understand theoretical concepts in proper order. Notes beget intervals,
intervals beget tetrachords, tetrachords beget the major scale and so on.

As you step through each item in proper order, the fretboard will begin to make sense to
you and youll start to see the pieces connect.

Definition of a Note:
According to Jean-Jacques Nattiez, a well-known professor of Musicology at the
University of Montreal, notes can be thought of the atoms of the music world, providing
the foundation for all musical analysis and discretization.

A note displayed, both as tablature and standard notation.

Aside from being an audible sound, a note has primarily two properties; pitch and


Duration, the easier of the two concepts, simply refers to the length of time that a note is
audible or held.

This is the length of time that a guitar string is vibrating and creating a wave frequency.
When the vibration stops, the note has ended, and we have completed the duration of the

What is Pitch?

Defining pitch is a more ambiguous and difficult venture.

Anssi Klapuri, in Signal Processing Methods for Music Transcription, penned this

Pitch is a perceptual attribute which allows the ordering of sounds on a frequency-

related scale extending from low to high.

While the science involved is complex, the practical implications are rather simple:
Musical pitch, indicated by the first seven letters of the alphabet, allows us to order sounds
based on how high or low they might be.

Thus, a musical scale (more on these later) will run from low to high, where each note has
a letter value used to indicate pitch, going from A to G:

A - B - C - D - E - F - G

This ordering of notes is what ultimately creates melody, which is simply a sequence of
variable pitches strung together. In other words, a series of pitches gives us scales which
provide a grid for melodic creativity.

Notes beget scales which beget melody

On the fretboard, this happens when you play a grouping of notes together in a linear line,
one after another:

Take the following score and tab sheet, for example:

An ascending melody, where the pitch is getting higher as it advances up the fretboard.

The pitch gets higher as you ascend up the fretboard toward the 17th fret. If you play
through the pattern backwards (descending), youll hear the melody start high and end low
on the fifth fret.

This is how the guitar is set up. The higher you go on the fretboard, the higher the pitch of
the note youre playing and vice versa.

The fretboard is unique in that you can have the exact same pitch at multiple points. This
is not true with keys on the piano.

For example, take a look at the following tab:

Two E notes of the exact same pitch.

Both are the exact same E note.

Notice how the two notes on the notation (above the tab lines) are identical.

There are a number of instances on the fretboard where you can have the exact same pitch
at different fretboard positions.

In a fretboard context, pitch is easily understood and applied in a linear line on each
individual string, where some of the notes on those strings will coincide and thus cross

Notes in Sheet Music and Tablature

In standard notation or sheet music, both properties of a note - pitch and duration - are

You can see in the diagram below where the time signature and notes are displayed. The
type of note used (quarter, eighth, sixteenth, etc.) is also used to indicate timing.

Time signatures and note types work in conjunction to allow musicians to keep time
simply by sight reading (more on timing and note duration later).

However, in tablature (tabs for short) a notes pitch is displayed by the corresponding
location on the fretboard via a fret number, often without any way to account for duration.
This doesnt mean tablature isnt usable, but it does mean you have to be able to figure out
the timing of each note intuitively.

In some cases, particularly when youre dealing with notation software, guitar tabs will be
displayed in measures accompanied with lines that indicate the notes duration.

For example, in the following tab you have the time signature (displayed at the beginning
in 4/4), and lines indicating quarter notes in the first measure and eighth notes in the
second (more on quarter and eight notes later):

Though in most cases, tablature is display simply using Courier font. If we took the tab
from the above diagram, it would look like this:

Theres no way to discern timing in this format and, in most cases, measures are not
indicated either.

While all of this means that guitar tab sheets could be problematic for the committed sight
reader, most guitar players are more comfortable with raw tabs than with formal sheet
music, simply because tabs are easier to understand and read.

Losing the ability to determine timing is deemed an acceptable casualty.

Naturals and Accidentals

Remember how I started off showing you the seven letters used to indicate a given pitch?

You may have thought, If there are only seven letters, how do we get so many frets?

Further, what notes do they all represent?

Having so many frets is possible partly because there are two different kinds of notes:

1. Naturals
2. Accidentals

Natural notes are simply notes that have neither sharps nor flats attached to them. In other
words, a natural is an unaltered pitch, thus cancelling any previous sign (sharp or flat).

Accidentals are just the opposite.

Any note with a symbol used to alter (raise or lower) a pitch by one semitone (equal to a
jump of one fret - more on these later) would be considered an accidental. In other words,
any note with a sharp or flat.

A natural and accidental displayed in a tab and standard notation.

Together naturals and accidentals make up all the notes of the musical spectrum and all the
notes that are represented on the guitars fretboard.

But what is a sharp and a flat? What do those terms mean?

To understand this in a guitar context lets focus on the fretboard in its entirety.

Fretboard Memorization: Learning the Notes

Take the third fret on the fourth string for example:

This note is an F; a natural note.

Now, lets look at the note on the fifth fret. Its a G, another natural note.

What about the one in the middle at the second fret?

That note is an accidental and has two values. Its both:

1. An F
2. And a G

The technical term for these two notes is an enharmonic equivalent, a concept which
does present some complexities.

Namely, it does not mean that they are the exact same note. On a guitar fretboard and a
piano keyboard they are, but in music theory, they are separated by whats called a

In Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, a comma is defined this way:

A comma is very minute interval of sound, the difference resulting from the process of
tuning up by several steps from one note to another in two different ways.

The good news is that as a guitar player you dont need to know the gory details of
commas and how they actually work, simply because they dont impact your playing
beyond fretboard memorization.

What you need to keep in mind is that enharmonic equivalents, like F and G are
similar but not identical in a theoretical sense.

An understanding of sharps and flats tells us the following about reading the fretboard: If
you put the sharp symbol after a note, you are indicating that the note is one semitone
higher in pitch than the letter that precedes the sharp symbol.

For example:

The following tab gives us a natural C note:

If we move up one semitone (to the ninth fret) we get a C :

At this spot on the fretboard, C and D are enharmonic equivalents, though not
technically the exact same note. Thus we call this note C and not D .

Flats are exactly the opposite. A flatted note indicates that the pitch it represents is one
semitone lowerthan the letter that precedes it. Therefore a B is one fret beneath
wherever the B occurs on the fretboard.

Taken together, natural notes, flats and sharps give us all notes that exist on a guitars
fretboard. This is how we have a 12 to 24 fret system, where notes dont repeat themselves
on any one string until the 12th fret.

We can further explore (and memorize) the fretboard notes by looking at this concept in
the context of chromatic scales.

Chromatic Scales and Sequences

The proper definition of a chromatic scale is the following:

A scale (usually with 12 pitches) where each pitch (note) falls one semitone after the other.

Helen Cooper, in The Basic Guide to How to Read Music, defines chromatic scales this

A chromatic scale may start on any note and then ascend or descend through twelve
consecutive half steps until the tonic, one octave above or below, is reached.

As Cooper points out (and as I mentioned previously), these pitches can be arranged in
either an ascending or descending pattern.

Ascending Chromatic Scale in the key of E

Descending Chromatic Scale in the key of E

Chromatic scales can also be referred to as equal-tempered scales, since each semitone is
equally spaced.

In the example above you can see that our scale begins at the scales root, while the E note
at the seventh fret, on the fifth string. It then ends at an E note, on the ninth fret and third
string, which is one octave higher.

The formal chromatic sequence would usually include every note except the final octave.
Adding it simply resolves to the root of the scale.

We can also think of a chromatic scale as the first 12 notes from the first to the 12th fret in
a straight line, which is easier to visualize:

Ascending Chromatic Scale on the Sixth String (E to E)

Ascending Chromatic Scale on the Fifth String (A to A)

Musically, the latter tab is no different than the one that precedes it, aside from the fact
that it is an octave lower.

This is how we begin to memorize the fretboard, by identifying each note on a given string
from the first fret all the way up to the 12th fret, at which point the pattern simply repeats

Lets start by memorizing the fretboard notes for the sixth string.

Memorizing the 6th String Fretboard Notes

You should start the memorization process on the sixth string for a couple of reasons:

First, its an open E, while the first string (the thinnest) is also an open E. Learning one
means youve learned both and youve knocked out one third of the strings that need to be

Second, it gives you a reference point for root notes that well use to memorize the rest of
the fretboard. If you dont know what a root note is, well get to it shortly.

To begin, lets simply write the sixth string notes out in order going from the first fret to
the 12th:

Remember, the open note of this string is E, so youre going from the low E note to the
high E note. This is the same thing that we saw in the chromatic scale examples, meaning
you have two notes that are separated by one octave.

On the fretboard, octaves are always separated by 12 frets (semitones). You can find
octaves by learning a couple easy cheats.

Try this:

1. The open note and the note at the 12th fret on each string are always each others
octave, therefore the same note.
2. The open notes for the sixth, fifth, fourth and second strings have an octave on
the following string located at the seventh fret:

For example:

The third string finds its octave on the eighth fret, per the following tab:

This is just because of the way standard tuning is structured.

So, octaves are the same note; one is just 12 semitones higher than the other.

The fifth string (the low A) would be handled the same way as the sixth string. Simply
begin with an open A and work your way up in the same order:

Repeat this process for the fourth, third and second strings.

Using Dyads to Make Memorization Easier
Most people find its easy to learn the notes of the sixth and fifth strings.

But, at the same time, folks have trouble making the push to learn the rest of the strings,
the fourth, third and second (remember, the high and low E strings are the same, so
knowing the sixth string means you know the first).

However, by using the sixth and fifth strings as reference points, we can utilize dyads to
cheat and find notes on both the fourth and third strings, leaving only the second string
(open B) to memorize.

How does it work?

To use this technique, we need the root of the dyad to fall on either the sixth or fifth string.
Lets pick a note on the sixth string that we know.

In this case, our note is a G located on the sixth string at the third fret:

Now, if we move up the fretboard two semitones and two strings higher (to the fourth
string) we can identify the root note on the fourth string as an octave of the note on the

In other words, theyre both the same.

These two G notes are displayed in the following diagram.

Lets try one more example:

Begin with a root note on the sixth string. Lets say, at the fifth fret.

This note is an A.

If we know that much, we can use a common dyad (more on these later) to find the
corresponding note on the fourth string.

Simply move two frets up on the sixth string:

Then move to the fourth string on that same fret.

That note, now on the seventh fret, is also an A and the octave of the note we started on at
the fifth fret and sixth string.

This same tactic can be applied to the third string via the notes on the fifth string moving
three frets up instead of two. Once again, this is to account for the structure of standard

Heres your octave:

For those who dont know, these are sharps, not hashtags. - Unknown

In a lot of situations, music theory will simply be a matter of vocabulary and the ability to
explain theoretical topics using the proper terminology.

For a guitar player, the most crucial and relevant theory concepts are limited to be
narrowed down to a list of 23 music theory ideas.

Knowing them will do two things:

First: It will make the rest of this book much easier to read and understand.

Second: It will allow you to explain and understand music in a more professional manner,
as youll be able to use the correct terminology for basic musical constructs that are
otherwise difficult to explain.

Before we cover the rest of our theory topics, well take a break to go through this
vocabulary, one item at a time.

If you prefer, you can skip this section, and simply refer back to it as a reference while you
read through the following chapters.

If youre really unclear on some of the vocabulary, I would advise reading through this
section, then using it as a reference point as you go through the rest of the content from
Section IV to the end of the book.

1. Root Note
According to the Hal Leonard Pocket Music Theory book, in the context of a triad, a root
note is:

The first note of a triad, which gives the triad its name.

Thus, we can surmise that a root note is a note that gives any musical chord or scale its
letter value, being the first note of that scale or chord.

Take the F major scale for example:

F - G - A - B - C - D - E

The first scale degree is the note furthest to the left, in this case F. As you move to the
right, the scale degrees go up to 2nd, 3rd, 4th degree and so on.

Thus, the name of the scale, or the root, is derived from the first scale degree.

There are a few different (and perhaps easier) ways we can think of a root note:

Root notes (and tonics) are:

1. Tonal centers
2. Where a group of notes or chords will resolve
3. The final resolution tone

Thats why a C chord is called a C chord, because it resolves to a C note and sounds
complete on this note. Its also the lowest note in the chord, which is often (though not
always) a place held by the root note.

Every chord begins with a root and is built out from that root. Any grouping of notes on
the fretboard, whether chords, scales or just short, melodic sequences, has a root.

2. Naturals
A natural is a note that has neither a sharp nor flat. It is simply displayed as its letter value
(C, D, E, etc.). Naturals can be understood as any note that has an unaltered pitch. These
notes are represented by the white keys on a piano running through C, D, E, F, G, A and B.

3. Accidentals

Accidentals are the opposite of naturals and have either a flat or a sharp associated with
them (F , B , etc.) which respectively lowers (in the case of flats) or raises (in the case
of sharps) the note that precedes it by one semitone.

4. Subdominant

While every scale has a tonic or root note, every scale also has whats called a
subdominant. Lets refer to a basic C major scale:

C - D - E - F - G - A - B

In this case, the C would be our root or the tonic.

The subdominant note would be the fourth scale degree, which means the F, because its
the fourth note from the left of the scales root. In the above diagram, this F note falls on
the fourth string at the third fret in accordance with the C major scale.

5. Dominant

Similarly, the dominant note is the fifth scale degree of any diatonic scale (more on
diatonic scales later).

Using the same example, we simply count five notes from the left of the scale, giving us
G, which falls on the fourth string at the fifth fret.

C - D - E - F - G - A - B

6. Semitone

As weve already touched on, a semitone denotes one half step and is the smallest musical
tone in western music. For guitar players, one half-step can be identified on the fretboard
as simply going from one fret to the next.

One Semitone (minor second interval)

7. Whole Tone

A whole tone denotes a whole step (easy to remember) showing up on the fretboard as a
two fret jump. For example, going from the 1st fret to the 3rd fret would be considered a
whole tone or a whole step. It can also be thought of as the sum total of two semitones.

One Whole Tone (major second interval or two semitones)

8. Interval

In music, an interval is the term used to describe the space between any two notes.
Different amounts of space (one semitone, three semitones, etc.) have different interval
names (minor second, major third, perfect fifth, etc.). These are easily measured on the
fretboard by simply counting the frets between any two notes.

For example, the following diagram would be considered a major third, because the two
notes are four semitones apart:

Well cover more on intervals in Section V.

9. Tetrachord
A tetrachord is a line of notes separated by the following intervals: whole, whole and
half, spanning the length of a perfect fourth (five semitones). For example, lets say you
wanted to build a tetrachord beginning at the fifth fret on the sixth string, your tab would
look like this:

A tabbed tetrachord going from the fifth to the 10th fret.

A tabbed tetrachord going from the first to the sixth fret.

Thus a major scale, which is made up of the following interval pattern, is said to be two
tetrachords separated by a whole tone:

Whole - whole - half - whole - whole - whole - half

Two tetrachords (circled) separated by one whole step.

Thus, a tetrachord can be thought of as a theoretical construct that helps bridge the gap
between two-note intervals and the major scale.

10. Diatonic Scale

A diatonic scale is made up of seven distinct pitches that include five whole steps and two
half steps per octave.

As an example, we can use the Ionian mode in the key of C:

C, D, E, F, G, A, B and C (tonic)

The Ionian mode is also the C major scale, which meets the diatonic requirements of
having seven natural pitches made up of five whole steps and two half steps. Any diatonic
scale, like the C major scale, can also be thought of as two tetrachords separated by one
whole tone.

This means that a basic major scale is a diatonic scale.

Its also helpful to note that a diatonic scale is any line of seven white keys on the piano.

11. Major Second

The term major second is the name given to the common interval marking two notes
separated by two semitones (or one whole tone), as in the following diagram:

12. Perfect Fifth

Perfect Fifth refers to a common interval where two notes are separated by seven
semitones. This interval is significant because it forms the shape of the most common
power chord seen in the first circled note pair in the following notation:

If we go back to our scale degrees, a perfect fifth is always made up of the tonic and the
dominant note in the major scale.

13. Octave

As I mentioned earlier, an octave is a unique interval where the second note is double the
frequency of the first, thus separated by 12 semitones and is the same musical note or
pitch letter.

For example, the following tab displays two E notes on the sixth string and two A notes on
the fifth string:

Octaves spanning 12 semitones on the sixth and fifth strings.

14. Open Notes

Open notes are the notes that ring when a guitar string is played without any fret being

In standard tuning, these notes are as follows (left to right, left being the sixth or thickest

E - A - D - G - B - E

15. Chord Progressions

A chord progression is any sequence of chords that aims to establish (or contradict) a
tonality, based on a particular key or root.

In Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. 1, authors Bruce Benward and Marilyn Saker add
that this tonality is based on a succession of root relationships. This means that most
chord progressions can find the root of each chord within a single scale. Thus every chord
progression has a key, which is primarily how we identify which key a song is being
played in.

16. Chromatic Scale

A chromatic scale is a series of 12 notes that are each separated by only one semitone. In
other words, theyre played one right after another.

The chromatic scale pattern, extending from the first fret to the 12th on the sixth string:

17. Key
The key is the root or tonic of the scale into which a group of chords or notes fall. For
example, if you have three notes being played, lets say theyre C, D and G, we know from
the C major scale that this note sequence can be placed in the key of C.

A songs key can also be thought of as the tonic note or chord that provides a sense of
resolve, rest or completion. Although this idea can be somewhat subjective, it is generally
agreed upon and has become universal to the human ear.

In other words, its the note that provides the greatest amount of consonance - or
agreeability - for the most notes in a given group. This agreeability of sound gives us a
feeling of release or resolution, while dissonance creates a feeling of tension and a lack
of resolve.

18. Dyads

According the Lindsay Harnsberger, in the Essential Dictionary of Music, a dyad is a

grouping of two notes played simultaneously. This is often used in the context of chords,
though a dyad is also an interval.

Four dyadic chord shapes:

19. Triads

Formally, a triad is a chord made up of the following three notes:

1. Root note
2. Third interval from the root
3. Fifth interval from the root

According to Ronald Pen in Introduction to Music, a triad can be defined as follows:

A triad is a chord consisting of three notes built on successive intervals of a third. A triad
can be constructed upon any note by adding alternating notes drawn from the scale.

There are some music theorists who have broadened this definition to include any chord
that groups together three notes with a reasonable amount of consonance and resolve.

For the purposes of music theory, Id recommend focusing on the formal definition of a

Here are four examples of triadic chords:

20. Barre Chords

A barre chord is any chord where you play more than one note via multiple strings with
the same finger.

G major barre chord example, with tab, standard notation and a chord diagram:

21. Power Chords

Power chords can be thought of as any chord with a root note on either the sixth or fifth
string, which are often limited, at most to two additional intervals. These intervals are
usually a third, fifth or octave. As we mentioned, the perfect fifth interval, assuming the
root note falls on either the sixth or fifth string, is one of the best examples of a power

22. Scales

A guitar scale is a sequence of notes that is arranged in a particular pitch, either ascending
or descending. In most cases, melody and harmony within a song is built on segments
derived from one particular scale, though a single piece of music can be based on multiple

23. Modes

Modes and scales are often confused, and in some sense can be the same thing. However,
a mode is more properly defined as a variation of a scale. For example, the Lydian Mode
is simply a slight variation of the major scale. Assume you have a major scale in the key
of F:

F - G - A - B - C - D - E - F

The F major scale:

You can then create a Lydian mode by raising the fourth degree of that major scale,
meaning the B becomes B:

F - G - A - B - C - D - E - F

The Lydian mode:

This is how you get modes and not just scales.

Every artist has a special set of tools. - Steve Vai

This might sound strange to hear before beginning a chapter on sheet music but, you
dont need to be able to read sheet music.

The purpose of this material, and the advantage in covering it, is to give you a familiarity
and general understanding of sheet music, such that you can speak with those who are
well-versed in it and know enough about it in a general sense to undergird your knowledge
of music theory

Its not meant to make you a prolific sight reader.

But knowing standard notation makes you a better musician and gives you a universal
method of reading musical notes, whereas tablature is only transferable to guitar and bass.
Knowing our way around sheet music means we can understand what were playing in the
context of musical notes and not just the fretboard.

Simply put, it should be familiar to us.

Thus, gaining that general familiarity with standard notation is what well focus on in this

For starters, what is sheet music? Weve seen it in part, but lets look at it in a more
comprehensive sense.

Sheet music is the formal or proper way to identify songs on paper so that musicians can
read and play them with proper pitch and timing for each note.

Often times, sheet music is called a score, or standard notation, while reading it is
referred to as reading music or sight reading.

So, what about sheet music do you need to know? Id advise starting with five basic parts.


Youll recognize sheet music by five basic components, all of which should be familiar to
you as a musician.

1. Staff: Comprised of five lines and four spaces, the staff makes up the grid on
which notes are drawn.

2. Clefs: There are two clefs youll see on the staff; treble and bass. They are used
to assign individual notes to certain lines and spaces. Note that when youre
dealing with guitar, youll typically see just the treble clef.

3. Ledger Lines: This is a small line that extends the clef above or below the staff,
if needed.

4. Notes: Easily identified, notes are displayed as small oval-esque circles that are
attached to short lines. The look and shape of these notes change depending on
the amount of time allotted to each note to create the melody (more on this later).

5. Bar or measure: In sheet music, a bar represents a segment of time that

corresponds to a specific number of beats, where each note within that bar is
represented by a particular note value. Bars are marked by vertical lines and
numeric labels, starting at one and going up as the bars increase until the end of
the song.

Heres a quick look at all five of these components displayed in two bars of sheet music:

These five terms are easy to learn if you take just a few minutes to familiarize yourself
with the diagram and simply memorize each item. What I havent fully explained is the
time signature at the beginning of the bar, which is identified by the two number fours
stacked on top of each other.

To understand this aspect of sheet music, you first need to understand how to determine
beat and timing based on note value, or the type of note being displayed in a given bar.

Well start with the notes themselves, then get into time signatures, which will explain the
two number fours.


As weve already seen, formal sheet music has mechanisms that allow us to read rhythm
and note duration within a piece of music.

Theoretically, this can allow a musician (who is a proficient sight reader) to play through
an entire piece of music, adhering to proper pitch and rhythm, without having ever heard
that song prior to seeing the sheet music.

Note: Rhythm and note duration should not be confused with tempo, which is measured in
beats per minute (BPM) as in 120bpm (more on this below).

While being able to do this isnt necessary, you should at least know how to determine
note duration and how to tell the difference between, say, a quarter note and an eighth
note, as theyre written in standard notation.

Lets refresh our memory about duration from the section on notes:

In music theory a notes value or duration is a system used to show how long a note is
to be held, or simply the length of time it is to be audible, within a specific measure.

Well cover the five most common note durations:

1. Whole Note: The longest duration, held an entire measure.

2. Half Note: Half the length of a whole note (half a measure).
3. Quarter Note: One-fourth the length of a whole note (quarter of a measure).
4. Eighth Note: An eighth of a measure (marked by one flag on the notes stem).
5. Sixteenth Note: A sixteenth of a measure (marked by two flags on the notes

Get familiar with the following diagram so you can recognize the different note durations
via sight.

When you see any of these notes on sheet music, youll be able to determine length of
time the note is to be held within that particular bar, as indicated by the time signature.
This should not be confused with the actual speed (or tempo) of the song which is usually
measured in beats per minutes (BPM) and requires some interpretation.

For example, 120 BPM is a fairly typical song speed, though cant be communicated
perfectly through sheet music alone.

You might know that a song is 120 BPM since it is often written on a piece of sheet music
for reference. However, you still have to guess how to play that speed, since BPM cant be
instinctively discerned.

However, the system of note values and time signatures is still your best way to
understand the rhythm of a song, even if you might have to take your best guess in terms
of how fast to play it.

We can now move on to time signatures which will help complete our understanding of
note values.


The value of every note within any bar is based on the time signature. Its common that an
entire piece of music has one time signature, though in some cases a composer will change
it for a portion of the piece.

This means a bar of music has the following properties:

1. Is segmented by a particular amount of time

2. Contains a certain number of beats

The time signature is what allows us to count the number of beats.

Easily identified as two numbers, one on top of the other, time signatures are found at the
beginning of every piece of sheet music. As I mentioned, should the time signature change
within a song, the new numbers will be display at the beginning of the first bar for which it

This is what it looks like displayed at bar 1:

But what do the two numbers mean?

In the example above, the two numbers show you that youll have four beats within
the measure that are all held the length of a quarter note. There are, of course,
numerous time signatures.

However, 4/4 and 3/4 are the two most common. In fact, 4/4 is called common time
since so many pieces are written in 4/4 time.

Here are the terms you need to know concerning measures and time signatures:

Measures: A segment of time defined by a number of beats
Bar Lines: Vertical black lines used to separate measures
Time Signatures: Show you how many and what type of notes a single measure
4/4 Time: Four beats, each held the length of a quarter note
3/4 Time: Three beats, each held the length of a quarter note

Keep in mind that when dealing with time signatures, the number on the top represents the
number of beats while the number on the bottom represents what type of note gets the

Theres little need to agonize over learning more complex time signatures like 6/8, since
they dont show up with as much regularity.

However, knowing the structure of the simpler time signatures will allow you to make
sense of those that are more involved and complex. To use the 6/8 example, you could
reason that it indicates six beats each held the length of an eighth note.

And youd be correct.

The important part to understand is the correlation between the time signature and note
values that are displayed in standard notation. The two elements work hand in hand.

Now that we understand the basic aspects of sheet music, Ill show you how to do some
basic, ground-level sight reading.

Take the following score for example:

What can we identify about these notes right out of the gate without having to consult a
cheat sheet? First, we know that they are in one bar, with a 4/4 time signature and are all
quarter notes.

And while it doesnt seem like a lot, thats a great deal of information that you wouldnt
have known otherwise.

To get the actual letter notes, youve simply got to bite the bullet and start off with a cheat
sheet like this one:

If we look at our previous piece of sheet music, we can find the same notes, rather easily:

To take it a step further, we can add back in our tab sheet as well:

Sharps and flats are displayed by simply adding a sharp or flat symbol to the note in
standard notation, which then corresponds to the correct fret number on the tab sheet.

Heres how that notation would line up:

Flats and sharps are identified by simply adding the corresponding symbol to the exact
same note. Once you start to remember the notes of the lines and spaces of the treble clef,
it gets a lot easier to actually read music.

As you may have seen before, there are a few popular acronyms that people use to
memorize these notes.

For the treble clef lines:

The treble clef spaces (The spaces spell FACE):

The bass clef lines:

The bass clef spaces:

My mom taught me piano when I was much younger and I remember these acronyms
being somewhat annoying. However, theres no doubt that theyre helpful and do make the
memorization process, which is the only option with learning these notes, much easier.

Now, I must reiterate:

Your expectation should not be to read music fluently, but to be comfortable identifying
notes and interpreting them when viewing music in sheet music form.

This is a far cry from being able to sight read an entire piece of music from scratch.

Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness. - Maya


Because it directly helps guitar players understand and navigate the fretboard, the concept
of an interval is one of the most useful aspects of music theory to learn.

Lets first define the term.

In his book titled The 12 Notes of Music: Ear Training and Interval Study, Mark John
Sternal defines intervals as the following:

An interval is how much is measured, or the distance (in pitch) between notes.

Thus, an interval can be understood on the guitar as the number of semitones, measured
in frets, between two notes.

Outside of a single note, intervals represent the most basic musical building blocks that
exist. In fact, everything youll play on a guitar can be broken down entirely into two-note
intervals because all forms of chords and scales are simply patterns composed of intervals.

In this system, each interval is given a name based on the number of semitones that
separates it from its corresponding root note.


So, how do you play an interval? How can we understand them on a tab sheet?

Ive explained some of the more common intervals already. If you recall the vocabulary
section, weve looked at the major second and perfect fifth, since they are particularly
common in the world of guitar.

What I want to do now is set you up to identify the rest of the intervals and to be able to
use an interval chart to identify particular aspects of chords and scales.

For example:

If you see a Cmaj7 chord, that number 7 is referring to an interval. If you dont
understand intervals, then you wont understand the theory behind that chord.

Lets start with the basics:

An interval is always made up of two pitches that can be either of the following:


Horizontal or linear intervals, are two pitches that sound successively, one after the

Here is a tabbed example:

Vertical intervals refer to two pitches that sound simultaneously, which is a fancy way to
say they create a chord.

Heres the same interval, tabbed in a vertical pattern:

The prevailing commonality of any interval is that its purpose is to measure the distance
between two notes. Of those two notes, one functions as the root and the other creates the
actual interval spacing.

Thus, an interval formation must have the following:

1. Root (first pitch)

2. Interval (second pitch)

The size of an interval can also be understood, admittedly in a more complex context, in
terms of the ratio between two frequencies. For example, an octave (12 semitones of
separation) could be written simply as 2:1, while a perfect fifth (seven semitones of
separation) would be written 3:2.

This is a good example of where music theory becomes less practical and applicable in
favor of deviating into the mathematical realm. Thus, it stands to reason, that while you
should be aware of the fact that intervals can be expressed as ratios, youre better off
taking the time to understand intervals via their names based on pitch.

As I mentioned earlier, intervals are named according to the number of pitches that
separate them all the way up to one octave.

This definition is the most functional way for a guitar player to understand intervals.

Thus, two notes, where there is a difference of one fret between them, can be given a
unique title. Two notes separated by two frets will also be given a unique title, all the way
up to a 12-fret spread.

Lets look at how to identify each one in this manner.


There are two equally valid options when it comes to learning all 12 intervals.

First: You can intentionally sit down and, through shear tyranny of will, memorize all 12
interval titles and their corresponding semitones.

While this might seem like the nobler and more academic method, I would contend that
its not entirely necessary - unless you just want the convenience of being able to recall
each interval in an instant.

Second: You can use a cheat sheet to simply refer to each interval as you need to identify
its quality.

For example:

Lets say you have two notes on a fretboard and you count the semitones between them,
but you dont know what the interval is. Simply refer to a chart (like the one below) that
has semitones and their corresponding interval quality listed.

Theres no harm in doing that, as long as you understand the concept.

Personally, Ive opted for a combination of both. I have memorized some of the shorter
intervals but usually look back at a cheat sheet to identify some of the longer ones (eight,
nine, 10 frets, etc.).

Here is one such cheat sheet with the first 12 intervals and their naming conventions listed
all the way up to one octave:

Note that when you get to the 12th fret, the interval sequence starts all over again. For
more info on this see the Compound Intervals section below.

After youve learned intervals, chords and scales can be broken down into smaller
components and music theory starts to become far more tame then it would have been
without any knowledge of interval spacing.

Spend some time with the first 12 intervals, at least enough to get comfortable and
familiar with some of the shorter ones in the list. You dont need to necessarily practice
playing the intervals themselves, but just know what they are and how to identify them.

For example:

You should know what it means when someone is talking about the fifth of a chord.
When you hear that term, its simply referring to the note in a chord that is the seven
semitones (a perfect fifth) from the root.

While it could end up being more of a memorization exercise than anything else, I think
youll be surprised at what a tremendous difference it makes in other areas of your

As I mentioned, intervals are named up to 12 semitones or one octave. What happens
when you have 13 or more semitones?

These are called compound intervals and are understood to be equal to one octave plus
the interval itself. For example, if you have an interval of 14 semitones, itll be both a
compound interval and a major second.

This means the interval note is the same, just one octave higher.

In most cases the naming and numerical conventions for these intervals will remain the
same, meaning you wouldnt say the fourteenth of a chord. You would still just say the
second. While it might seem a bit confusing initially, learning the first 12 intervals will
make compound intervals seem much easier.

For our purposes, the second 12 frets can be treated exactly as we treat the first 12.

Any idiot who knows five chords can bang a song together. But its probably going to be rubbish. - Joe Elliott

Joe Elliott is right.

You can know a few chords, even a lot of them, yet still have no real musicianship to offer.
Youll have muscle memory but no real theory.

Knowing chords involves more than just raw memorization. Sure, you need to recall chord
shapes. But more importantly, you need to understand the parts of a chord, how to
properly arrange the roots of each chord (chord progressions) and how chords are actually
put together (intervals and chord composition).

That gives us three basic categories to work with:

1. Chord Types
2. Chord Progression Theory
3. Chord Composition and Intervals

These three areas of study will give you a foundational understanding of how to put
chords to practical use, make sense of their naming conventions, and how to build them
from scratch.

Once you go through this material, youll find that memorizing chord patterns becomes a
lot easier.

We can start by simply covering the different parts of a chord and the different chord


Exploring the definition of a chord gives us a wealth of theoretical information to start


In simple terms:

Chords are made up of two or more note groupings that are played together
simultaneously. The parts of a chord will depend on what type of chord is being played,
though they can generally be broken up into three categories:

1. Root Note (tonic)
2. Interval(s)
3. Extensions

With any chord, youll have a root or bass note, which gives the chord its letter value.
For example, a C chord will have a root note of C, which you could surmise from our
discussion of root notes in Section III.

Any other note in a chord is an interval in relation to the root note. This means that all
notes in a chord are assigned interval qualities based on their distance from the chords

In this diagram we have the root C with the other intervals listed based on their distance
from that root. This is how different types of chords are built, with different inclusions and
arrangements of intervals.

For example, a Cmaj9 chord, also called an extended chord, adds a major seventh and a
ninth (extension) to a major third dyad, giving you the following shape:

Thus, we have a root, intervals and an extension.

This is how we can understand chord composition and the numbers we see in chord
naming conventions. Thus, addressing all types of chords is not necessary provided we
can understand the construction and theory of a select few.

To give us context for digging into some of this theory, lets focus on the most common
chord types. Once they have been covered, we can look at a few more involved shapes,
like the Cmaj9.

Here are the first five types of chords Ill go over:

1. Open
2. Barre
3. Dyads
4. Triads
5. Power

These are the five most common chord types you can expect to run into as a guitarist.

There are others, as mentioned, but these first five will make up most of what youll play
and need to know.

Well look at the theory involved with each one and how to approach learning them so as
to provide a structural understanding for analyzing, playing and even building more
complex chords.


An open chord simply means that we use one or more open notes (strings that are not
fretted) in order to play them.

For example, an open G note:

We then find the same open G note in the open G major chord:

Every open chord will have at least one open note.

This is where we get what music teachers call the CAGED system, which stands for the
five basic open chords that most guitar students learn first.

C major - A major/minor - G major - E major/minor - D major

These chords are singled out because theyre particularly easy, adaptable for the beginner
and highly reusable. In other words, you learn them early and play them often.

Take the E major chord for example:

The notes listed in the tab as 0 are all open or unfretted notes, which tell us this
particular E major chord is in the open position.

Were you to remove those notes we would no longer call it an open chord, as in the
following chord diagram:

Formally this shape would be more properly designated as a moveable triad or power
chord (more on those later), since it can switch frets and change keys while maintaining its
interval arrangement. The key is to simply recognize common open chords and know what
it means to say theyre in the open position.

In that regard, open chords are easily understood.

Lets cover the CAGED system in its entirety, then look at a few other open chord

The CAGED System Chords

Here are the diagrams for each one:

Open chords can also show up in a number of different forms. For example, you can have
a power chord that also happens to be in the open form:

You can also have triadic chords that are in the open position:

Thus, open chords (like most chord types) can easily cross paths with other chord types
and are not mutually exclusive. Once these are under our belts, the next logical step is to
move onto barre chords.

The formal definition of a barre chord is somewhat broad, in that it can include a lot of
different patterns at any fret.

Heres my own wording:

A barre chord is any chord where you play more than one note via multiple strings with
the same finger.

The most recognizable barre chord is the following shape:

The three notes on the third fret are theoretically all supposed to be pressed down by a
flattened out pointer finger. That said, whats far more common is for guitarists to omit the
two highest notes and play the chord this way:

In a formal classroom, this probably wouldnt be accepted as a barre chord simply because
there is no instance of one finger playing more than one note. However, the two notes at
the fifth fret could, theoretically, be played with one finger.

That said, the four-note chord is still the base structure of the most common barre chord
variations, so theres little issue with calling it a barre chord, regardless of whether or not
it includes the two higher notes on the third fret.

Also consider that the minor version of this chord must be barred on the third fret.

Heres the shape:

Another common barre chord occurs when you move the root note to the fifth string,
playing a similar shape with a major and minor version.

The Dmaj version is our first example:

The collection of three intervals, all falling on the seventh fret, are obviously handled best
by barring all three with the same finger, usually the ring finger.

To get the minor version of the chord, we simply drop the highest interval (the major
third) down one semitone to the sixth fret:

Though there are many different forms and shapes that barre chords can take, the two
patterns shown here, with root notes at the sixth and fifth strings, are by far the most

Most barre chords are based on a variation of one of these two shapes.

The formal definition of a chord usually requires at least three notes, excluding the dyad
since it only has two. However, it depends on which music theorist you ask as to whether
or not dyads can join the club.

For example, Ott Krolyi, a senior music professor at the University of Stirling,
recognizes groups of two notes as chords.

Dyads can also be thought of as vertical interval examples, since you have a root note plus
one additional pitch.

I tend to side with the argument that anytime you have more than one note, sounding
simultaneously, you have a chord.

Dyadic chord shapes have several common patterns on the guitar.

Here are just a few in a tabbed example:

Each dyad is moveable, which means it can be transposed to any fret and will adopt the
note value of its new root.

These small chords can easily be intermingled amongst thicker, more substantial
progressions in order to create accents, harmonies or melodies.

Let say you want to add some melodic flavor to the following progression:

Its a low drop D pattern, but you can use the following dyad to add a tri-note melody over
top of it:

While thick power chords drive the rhythm, dyads can easily add intermittent melody
throughout the progression. This process is commonly used in the post-grunge era of rock
music, often to add emotion and melody over the heavy and driving power riffs that are so
prevalent in that genre.

A good example is in the opening measures of Tender Surrender by Steve Vai. While
power chords and distortion are not emphasized, Vai uses a lengthy, melodic run of dyads
to set the theme of the music.

This is how you would use dyadic chords as a method of hinting at lead patterns, themes
and melodic runs.

Additionally, lighter genres of music will often use a rhythmic progression that occurs on
the higher register and is less heavy. Dyadic chord progressions are perfect for this as
they provide a less intense way to fill in a bass line.

For example:

Lets say you wanted to play G, C and D, but you didnt want to limit yourself to the
thicker open chord forms.

Heres an alternative dyadic run that starts at the 10th fret and runs through the G, C and D

These simple shapes are workable fill-ins that will sound more subtle while leaving room
for other instruments.

Almost all dyadic chord shapes are made up of a root note and one of the following three

1. Third
2. Fifth
3. Octave

If you want to come up with a chord progression made up of dyads, or if you simply want
to inject dyads into an established bass line, track the root notes of the progression then
add the intervals of your choice.

While dyads can certainly have other intervals, these three (listed above) are the most
common in western music.

Add one more note to your dyad and you get our next type of chord.


Triads can be defined as any chord made up of three notes. That said, the full, formal
definition is a bit more involved.

In music theory, a triadic chord has three notes that are stacked in thirds. This means,
according to most music theorists, its not accepted that just any group of three notes
would be considered a triad.

However, formal triads are common and show up in just about every musical situation.

For example, this basic C major chord shape is a triad:

It simply omits the last note on the first fret from what would have been a familiar open C
major chord.

Thus, a triadic chord has three parts, as weve seen in previous sections:

1. Root note
2. Third interval from the root
3. Fifth interval from the root

If you recall the interval discussion in Section V, you can see that in the above tab, our
root C is at the third fret while the third and fifth intervals fall at the second fret and open
G respectively. This makes it easy for us to count semitones and verify our third and fifth

You can always follow this pattern to create or identify a triad simply by choosing a spot
for your root note.

For example, lets say you want to build a triad on the sixth string at the third fret. You
need the root, plus the third and fifth of the root, which gives you the following shape:

In this example our third and fifth are identifiable in the same manner, falling the same
number of semitones from the root.

However, the three notes of any triad can be arranged differently without changing the
musical properties of the chord.

This is called a chord voicing.

All triads have three different voicings:

1. Root position
2. First inversion
3. Second inversion

In the root position, a chords lowest note matches the chords letter value, just like in our
above examples with the Cmaj and Gmaj triads.

The first inversion of a chord is where the notes are arranged so that the third interval
is the lowest, in terms of pitch, while the second inversion brings the fifth interval to the
lowest position.

Heres how it would look with our earlier C major example:

From left to right, you have the root position, first inversion and second inversion.

If you play through each chord, one after the other, youll hear three chords that all sound
like a C chord, and in fact they are. Looking at the tabs, you can also see that were simply
playing different parts of a more full C chord.

For example, play the following shape:

Every note of our chord can be heard in this version of open C major.

This means that any grouping or arrangement of those notes could be played, perhaps as a
lead melody, over a C major chord.

Practically, this allows you to do more with each chord you play and the chord
progressions you might arrange. For any one triadic chord you can choose from three
voicings. The composition of the triad (root note, third and fifth interval) makes this
consistent and easy to implement.

It also expands your ability in terms of lead guitar since you can use the different voicings
to create arpeggios, themes and lead melodies out of just a few notes.


Perhaps most prominent in the rock and roll music of the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, power
chords have become one of the fretboards most commonly utilized shapes and chord

Since its inception was due largely to a cultural movement and emotional idea (dark and
aggressive music), the theoretical distinctions of a power chord are a bit more ambiguous
than other chord types.

Typically, a power chord is any chord that adheres to the following properties:

1. Has its root note on one of the two lowest strings (sixth or fifth)
2. Limited to two or three notes
3. Played in conjunction with heavy distortion, gain or other saturating effect

The most common example of this is a simple perfect fifth interval with a root note on the
sixth string.

Wed call the above chord a G5.

By now, youve seen this many times and are likely comfortable playing it in a standard
tuning. The same shape becomes even easier to play in the drop D tuning, as in the
following diagram:

This power chord can now be played with one finger, even if you add the octave on the
fourth string:

As you may have gathered, all power chord shapes are moveable and can be transposed to
any fret. That said, most will occur beneath the 12th fret, since their purpose is to provide
a thicker, heavier tone and atmosphere.


Once you get beyond chords that are based on third and fifth intervals, your next stop is a
seventh chord.

Youve probably seen the following chord name:

Cmaj7 or C7

Predictably, that 7 denotes a seventh chord which simply means you have a C major
triad (root, third and fifth) with a pitch added from the seventh scale degree of the C major

You can also think of it, more simply, as forming an interval of a seventh above the root.
Keep in mind that when you hear seventh chord it is usually assumed that the seventh
interval is a minor seventh, unless otherwise specified.

This is also called a dominant seventh chord.

Heres the C7 chord in a tab sheet and standard notation:

The seventh interval is a B placed at the third fret on the third string, 10 semitones from
the root C.

You might be wondering, Where is the fifth of the chord?

Not all seventh chords will necessarily include all components of a triad. As you may
have gathered, the C7 above has the major third and an octave C paired with the seventh
interval, but no fifth.

It is often the case, particularly on guitar, with seventh and extended chords, that intervals
of less importance will be omitted. In the C7 example, the major third and minor seventh
are crucial to creating the dominant seventh tone, while the fifth is, more or less,

In most chords, the fifth provides the least amount of harmonic information.

The octave is added out of pure convenience and in keeping with the traditional C major
open chord form.

In addition to either a minor or major seventh that might be used, there are a variety of
triadic arrangements that might be used.

Here are the most common seventh chords youll encounter as a guitar player:

Extended chords, that go beyond the seventh scale degree, take this idea one step further,
either extending or adding a compound interval. This can include any of the following:


As with the seventh chord, all three of those chords will have a varying number of forms,
often omitting the fifth, the ninth in an 11th chord or the 11th in a 13th, thus making room
for a wide range of chord combinations.

Now, if youve understood the material covered so far, the idea of a chord with a ninth,
11th or 13th extension should not be entirely foreign to you.

Lets walk through the process step by step, just to make sure were able to visualize the
theory involved.

First, you start with a scale, like you would for any major chord.

In this example, well go with C:

C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C

Then we need to number our scale degrees underneath each note:


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Now, if we were created just a C major triad, we can surmise from earlier sections that we
would need the 1st, the 3rd and the 5th degree of this scale, giving us the following:


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Then, if we want to create a C major seventh chord, wed take the first, third (wed usually
omit the fifth) and the seventh, just like we saw in the earlier example:


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

So, how do we go up to the ninth scale degree? What about the 11th or 13th? If you refer
back to compound intervals, we can simply keep going - repeating the notes of the scale
and numbering the scale degrees accordingly, like this:


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

We can surmise that the ninth of our chord will be D, a compound interval, the 11th would
be F and so on up the scale. To create our ninth chord, we then want some grouping of the
following scale degrees that provide the most harmonic information:


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

This gives us all the notes of the Cmaj9 chord:

C - E - G - B - D

In the most common C9 chord form, we omit the fifth and play the chord at the third fret
position, while flatting the seventh which was originally a B, making it a B :

Now, I should mention that its incredibly easy to play this particular chord while
including the fifth.

Simply fret the root note at the third fret and play all the remaining open strings. If you
walk through the scale degrees and each note, youll see that you have all five of the notes
in a Cmaj9 chord.

However, this isnt something thats always doable, which is why the fifth is often left out.

Either way is an entirely valid way to play the chord.


When you have Cmin9 chord, dont assume that weve created it by flatting the ninth of
the chord. Instead, its simply telling you that the triadic formation beneath the ninth chord
is a minor or saddened group of tones.

Thus, our easiest example of a Cmin9 is to give you the following:

Minor triad
Minor (flatted seventh)

This means we can go back to the five notes we pulled out of the extended C major scale


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Now, if we think back to what weve already learned about chords and triads, we can get
our minor triad by adding a flatted third (recall that weve already got our flatted seventh
when we create the C9):


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Now that we have all of the notes mapped out, we can easily diagram our Cmin9 chord:

Even though this shape omits the fifth, its still fairly difficult to play on the guitar. Thus,
the seventh is also frequently omitted, in favor of simply coupling a minor triad with the
ninth of the root, as in the following diagram:

What is far more important than simply memorizing this pattern, is understanding how we
get to this point and how we would use the knowledge weve built up to understand and
build more complex chords.

For example:

Knowing what you know so far, how would you go about building a C7 9 13?

First, you know by now what a C7 chord would look like, so you can start there:

To get our flatted ninth we simply drop the ninth that we have in our previous diagram
down one semitone:

Now, we can go back to our C major scale and degree table to find what the 13th scale
degree would be:


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

We can find the 13th degree the same way we found the ninth, by simply continuing up the
scale. This tells us that the 13thof the root C will be an A, which, according to the chord
name should be flatted, making it a B , which we can easily add on the first string at the
fourth fret:

Now its clear that there are a ton of other chords out there that we havent touched on.
Obviously weve been working exclusively with the C chord for all our example.
However, the beauty of understanding the theory is that it can be reapplied regardless of
key or chord.

Those who study guitar in a formal environment, are involved with classical music or who
dabble in jazz sub-genres, will have more run-ins with these chords and would do well to
continue exploring other chords with these structures and methods in mind.

Know the intervals and the concept behind their addition to tertian triads.

If that makes sense to you, thats as far as Id advise going, barring more particular
stylistic demands and contexts.

When you wanna rock hard, children, lean on F sharp. - Tom Morello

Everything weve been learning up to this point, has been leading us to scales.

Even just one scale is a wealth of musical opportunity as it provides you with
all the necessary pieces to build an engaging melody. Its not necessarily the
scale itself, but patterns in the form of harmonies and melodies that are so

Thus, memorizing scales in and of themselves should not be our ultimate goal.
We can memorize scales until were half dead from boredom, but if we dont
do anything with those scales, weve done ourselves no favors.

Instead, when we study scales, we should prioritize the following:

1. Melody
2. Harmony

And none of this is to say that memorization doesnt have its place, or a role to
play. It certainly does.

However, the advantage of scale memorization is that it allows you to quickly
draw from and refer to a scale shape to aid in the creation of melody. When
you spend time memorizing, it should lead somewhere.

As you memorize scales and build more familiarity with their sound, you
become more capable and adept at creating lead guitar patterns, solos and
melodic filler. Theyre structures that allow you to engage creatively and work
within proper musical boundaries.

This process takes a bulky, awkward sequence of notes and draws from them a
lean, well-designed melodic line. Thus, our understanding of scales should
culminate in increased creativity and, in particular, improved lead play.

Those are our goals for this section.

Once you know what key youre playing in, a scale is your next theoretical

Youve seen, in part, how we can go from a key, to a scale, to chords and then
progressions, in that order:

1. Key
2. Scale
3. Chords
4. Progression

Youll find it difficult to understand scales without understanding that every
scale has a key and a series of notes that can be seen either as single root notes
or chords in a progression.

Its an easy first step to give some context to a term, guitar scales, thats
often thrown around without any real understanding of why it matters.

Armed with this information, we can start to focus on a scale with some
background and context.

First, lets establish a definition:

A scale is a sequence of musical notes ordered by fundamental frequency.

While these sequences can extend the entire length of the fretboard, were
going to focus on the seven-note representations.

For example, the E major scale, when explained outside of a specific
instruments diagram, is simply this:

E, F , G , A, B, C , and D

This scale can show up in a number of different ways, though the most
common guitar representation is the following diagram:

In this case, weve simply chosen a convenient key (E). In the real world of
music composition, well often have a key dictated to us. For example, a
session guitar player might be asked to come up with a filler for a songs verse
thats in the key of C.

What youll find is that the chord progressions for that verse (and likely the
entire song) will match several of the notes within the C major scale, which is
made up of the following notes:

C, D, E, F, G, A, and B

Lets say C, D and G (a highly common arrangement) is our chord
progression, which we can see is drawn directly from the C major scale.

This is how scales, chords and melodic solos connect.

Our chords and our melody can be drawn from the same C major scale shape.

To come up with a lead pattern well take the C major scale and begin by
plotting it as a guitar scale diagram, just like we did for the E major scale:

We can now draw from this structure in order to experiment with melodies and
harmonies that will act as filler for our verse, adhering both to the key and
chord progression that have already been established.

Lets simply take the E, F and G on the fourth string:

Once we pull this shape out of the scale, our raw tab and notation might look
something like this:

While this is a fairly simple example, we can use these three notes as a way to
build melody and act as an anchor for more complex patterns. For example,
we could expand on this shape using any of the following tactics:

Applying techniques (bends, vibrato, etc.)
Using more notes from the scale
Experimenting with dissonant notes
Using modal variations (more on modes later) of the scale (Lydian,
Phrygian mode, etc.)

At this point, you can take any small piece of the C major scale in a number of
different directions.

This is defined as improvisation.

And while its not necessary to go through this process in your mind every
time you want to improvise or write a lead guitar part, understanding the
structure, and connectivity between the key of a song - its scale and chord
progressions - will help solidify scale theory in your mind and make it more

Guitar scales will start to make more logical sense. Youll use them rather than
just memorize them.

Scales can be categorized, named and understood based on the intervals they

For example, you can have a diatonic scale which is defined by the following

1. Composed of seven pitches
2. Five whole steps per octave
3. Two half steps per octave

Thus the major scale, which fits these parameters, is one of several diatonic
scales. The entire collection of diatonic scales can be divided into seven
groups called modes:

1. Aeolian
2. Dorian
3. Ionian
4. Locrian
5. Lydian
6. Mixolydian
7. Phrygian

Modes are simply variations of diatonic scales, where certain modes are
known by other titles, for example:

1. Ionian: better known as The Major Scale
2. Aeolian: better known as The Natural Minor Scale

Thus, modes are scales and scales are modes.

There are two other types of scales that are defined by their intervals:

1. Chromatic: 12 pitches all separated by one semitone
2. Whole Tone: Each pair of notes is separated by one whole step

At a practical level, and in the context of Western music, the most common
scale, by far, is the diatonic scale. Without it you dont have the major or
natural minor scales which underscore a ton of the music we listen to and play
on our guitars.

This is why most major scales are displayed in a series of seven pitches, as
they are diatonic scales that simply repeat themselves in either direction.

Additionally, scales can be broken up by the number of different pitches they

This is where you get the ever-popular pentatonic scale, which youve likely
heard of, or at least played without realizing it. The heptatonic, or seven-note
scale, is another way of describing the diatonic scale.

Thus the major scale is an example of both a heptatonic scale and a diatonic
scale, while the Ionian mode is an example of all three.

In total, you have the following scales based on pitch:

Octatonic (8 notes per octave)
Heptatonic (7 notes per octave)
Hexatonic (6 notes per octave)
Pentatonic (5 notes per octave)
Tetratonic (4 notes per octave)
Tritonic (3 notes per octave)
Diatonic (2 notes per octave)
Monotonic (1 note)

Of these eight scales, the Heptatonic and Pentatonic are going to have the most
relevance to your guitar playing. Once again, we see how the seven note scale
segment makes sense as a theoretical building block.

As you understand how all the different scale terminology relates, the task of
understanding them and knowing where to put your mental energy becomes a
lot simpler.

In other words, theres no need to plan for time devoted to studying the Ionian
mode and the Heptatonic scale on two separate occasions.

Theyre the same thing.

Moreover, weve been able to highlight the scale categories that are most
commonly seen in the type of music that a guitar player living in the Western
world would be familiar with.

Thus, scale theory doesnt have to be daunting. It just needs to be targeted.

In that regard, I would advise focusing your attention on the following two
scales as I believe theyll be the most useful to your guitar playing:

The Major Scale: Example in the Key of C

The Pentatonic Minor Scale: Example in the Key of E

Just as we looked briefly at how to build melody out of a specific scale in the
C major example, lets go through a similar exercise, this time in the key of G.

Recall that we need a key, a scale and a chord progression.

Our key is G, our scale is G major and our chord progression can be the

The progression is a simple run of G, C, D and G again, which means we can
draw on the G major scale for some kind of melody, since that scale contains
all three of the chords in this progression at the first, fourth and fifth scale

Take a quick look at our full G major scale, made up of the following notes:

G, A, B, C, D, E, and F

Thus, we get the resulting scale diagram:

Lets focus on the run of B, C and D on the fifth string and start to build our
melody using those three notes as a simple template.

Even if we limit our pattern to just these notes, there are a number of different
techniques and arrangements we can use to apply it as a complimenting
melody. Take the following tab for example:

In this short measure I use the three notes from the scale to create dyads, while
applying a quick slide and vibrato. Its a simple exercise, but its a great
example of how we can derive our melody and lead guitar patterns directly
from the scales of the key in which were playing.

Now, remember how I mentioned that scales extend the length of the
fretboard? If we know the pattern of our scale, we can extend it and use that
additional space to expand our soloing.

Because the sequence of a scale, in this case, G, A, B, etc., doesnt change. It
simply repeats itself up and down the fretboard.

Thus, if we want to expand our scale, we can simply count up from where our
last diagram left off:

Now our soling pattern could start out looking something like this:

Again, this is a simple quarter note pattern that doesnt aggressively explore
the creative options that the G major scale affords.

The same is true for our earlier example with the C major scale.

However, both are accurate depictions of the improvising process that help
you see how easy it is to use scales as a means to an end, instead of a boring
opportunity to memorize a pattern that doesnt mean anything to you.

This is what I mean when I use the term, applied theory. We understand keys
and scales as a topic, and now weve done something with them thats

Weve gone from theory to performance; from the abstract to the concrete and

I dont know anything about music. In my line you dont have to. - Elvis Presley

Ironically, you can play a lot of music on the guitar without knowing anything at all about
music. You can recall patterns, develop muscle memory and put notes together without
ever having to crack a theory book.

But those who handle the guitar in that manner will get to a point where theyll hit a wall,
realizing that they dont really know their instrument.

I probably spent close to 15 years with the guitar before I had that epiphany. When it
happened, I realized I knew little about guitar, less about music and had no real
understanding of what I was playing.


As things were, could I have kept playing guitar?


I could have soldiered on, learned new licks, riffs and tabs without really skipping a beat.
But it bothered me and felt, in a strange sense, very limiting and constricting, which is,
ironically, how many guitar players characterize the thought of learning music theory.

But as I began to dig up the theory behind all the patterns and fretboard movement, it was
exactly the opposite.

The more theory and musical structures I learned, the freer and more creatively engaged I

While Im far from what one might consider a scholar of music theory, Ive learned how
to use it to bolster, improve and underscore what Ive been playing on the guitar for all
these years. Moreover, I can have an intellectually accurate conversation about the music
Im playing, using proper terminology.

So for me, the difference between knowing what to play and why I was playing it was a
big one.

I hope this book has made that distinction clear to you as well.

Thanks for reading.

For more content, check out:

Works Cited
Klapuri, Anssi, and Manuel Davy. 1.1 Terminology and Concepts. Signal Processing
Methods for Music Transcription. New York: Springer, 2006. 7-8. Print.

Miller, Michael. The Complete Idiots Guide to Music Theory, 2nd ed. [Indianapolis, IN]:
Alpha, 2005. ISBN 1-59257-437-8. p. 19.

Capstick, John Walton (1913). Sound: An Elementary Text-book for Schools and Colleges.
Cambridge University Press.

Randel, Don Michael. Accessist. The Harvard Dictionary of Music. Cambridge, MA:
Belknap of Harvard UP, 2003. 4. Print.

Sadie, Stanley, and George Grove. Comma. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and
Musicians. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 568. Print.

Cooper, Helen. The Chromatic Scale. The Basic Guide to How to Read Music. New
York, NY: Putnam Pub. Group, 1985. 66. Print.

Wyatt, Keith, and Carl Schroeder. Triads. Hal Leonard Pocket Music Theory:.
Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard, 1998. 28. Print.

Benward, Bruce, and Marilyn Saker. Music: In Theory and Practice. Vol. 1. N.p.:
McGraw-Hill, 2003. Print.

Pen, Ronald. Introduction to Music. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992. 81. Print.

Sternal, Mark John. The 12 Notes of Music: Music Theory Simplified: Ear Training and
Interval Study Course. Crystal River, FL: MJS Publications, 2010. Print.

Polansky, Larry. The Tetrachord in Experimental Music. (n.d.): n. pag. Dartmouth.
Dartmouth College. Web. 29 Aug. 2016.

Harnsberger, Lindsey C. Essential Dictionary of Music: Definitions, Composers, Theory,

Instrument & Vocal Ranges. Los Angeles: Alfred Pub., 1997. Print.